So the other night, I finally saw The Crow, the 1994 cult-classic starring Brandon Lee. I found myself rather disappointed with the film by the time the credits began to roll. Given how the typical complaint is that movies like this are too violent and bloody, I was surprised to find that my disappointment was due to the movie not being nearly bloody enough.
To briefly recap the plot, the movie begins with Eric Draven (Lee) murdered and his fiancee, Shelly Webster, beaten, raped, and left dying the day before their wedding. We later learn that they were victimized in order to scare the community that they were trying to rally together against a group of thugs. According to the opening narration, some wrongs are so great that a soul cannot rest. In such cases, the crow that ordinarily takes the soul to the next world instead brings it back to Earth, nigh-invincible, until things are set aright. The returned Draven therefore proceeds to systematically kill each of the men involved in the crime in ways that are both brutal and slightly thematic (the druggie is drugged to death, the pyromaniac is burned, etc). In short, the horrible men die in horrible ways.
So why weren’t these mildly poetic executions satisfying? Now, I’m not the sort who prefers to dismiss retribution because it has no utilitarian justification (e.g. because justice can’t bring people back from the dead.) Leaving wickedness unanswered because the answer is unhelpful to us is nothing more than dismissing victims as unimportant. The punishment should fit the crime because it is a public corroboration of the value of what was destroyed. The point of retributive justice isn’t merely to punish and vindictively make sure that bad things happen to bad people, but to recognize and demonstrate the value of those harmed in the injustice.
Shouldn’t I, then, have been pleased that justice was served and the villains got what was coming to them? That’s just the problem; they didn’t get what was coming to them. The punishment did not fit the crime. Visually, the movie is quite impressive, and the audience is treated to brief flashes of the couple’s life together before their murder. The filmmakers were quite effective in communicating that the villains destroyed not only a couple of lives and a chance at happiness in an otherwise bleak world, but an embodiment of values like love, marriage, family, and community. Does scaring the criminals for a few minutes before violently killing them really balance this out?
Earthly justice is only a shadow of the real thing; it cannot expiate all wrongs. “An eye for an eye” is clearly not ultimate justice because you can only execute a serial killer once. None of us is capable of making up for all the harm we have done to others, so it is no surprise that earthly justice cannot force such a redress. We can only expect so much out of it. Setting aside concerns about the distinction between revenge and retribution, I might see some satisfaction when Benjamin Martin finally kills the man who killed his sons in The Patriot or when Frank Castle utterly destroys the man who murdered his family in The Punisher. These characters were ordinary men going as far as ordinary men can go in the pursuit earthly justice. But The Crow wasn’t just earthly retribution carried out by a normal human being–the heavens sent back a magical juggernaut to right a great wrong. Was this really the best the heavens could manage? It is precisely here, where even killing doesn’t hit the mark, that Hell begins to make a kind of sense.
As many people point out, eternal torture of bad people merely because that’s what bad people deserve is unhelpful at best and sick & twisted at worst. It is far more sick and twisted, however, to simply shrug off evil–to dismiss a young couple’s rape and murder by saying “it happens; we’ll do out best to avoid a recurrence.” On one hand, Hell doesn’t make anything better; on the other hand, dispensing with Hell for the guilty is treason to the innocent. It is precisely this dilemma that tortures Ivan in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov:”
It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured?”
The solution to Ivan’s dilemma is found in the Cross. The forgiveness offered by Christ is free and boundless, but it doesn’t make light of the sin. God does not diminish our neighbors by shrugging off the evil we have done against them. Instead, he punished it to the fullest. However, in order to save us, the punishment fell on God Himself when Jesus Christ took our place before the judgment seat. Every last evil deed has been atoned for–we, as victims, were not dismissed. At the same time, however, we, as the wicked perpetrators, were not punished, but forgiven.
Movies like this can provide some legitimate satisfaction because they depict the same thing that earthly justice is meant to depict–an image and shadow of heavenly justice and a reminder that we are under authority. Heavenly justice, however, requires a higher standard–one which is met by the Cross rather than the Crow.